The scents and sounds were familiar. In the kitchen, my mom stood over a stir-fry sizzling on the stovetop, and I breathed in an aromatic swirl of ginger, garlic, and fish sauce. I was back at the home where I grew up, and I fell easily into a rhythm of being I've adopted since returning to visit yearly during the holidays. It was a state of being that was unique. For the time being, I abdicated many adult responsibilities, leaving the workplace behind. Yet, I was not truly on vacation, not in that state of carefree leisure that you would call being on vacation.
I certainly had hours of leisure at hand, unrushed moments to read the book I had brought from home and to catch up with an old friend who still lives in town. And I did readily settle into the well-worn routines that required no effort on my part. It's as if an imprint made by me from a year ago -when I lounged and read on the couch in the family room- were still there, and all I had to do was fall back into this mold, arrange myself neatly with a book, and pick up the thread of my existence from the year past. It seemed a little too easy.
I was surrounded by the past, and I bumped into objects and memories that invited introspection. There was my old Jane Eyre paperback, its binding falling apart, gallantly flanked by two sturdy hardcovers (on WWII tactics that my dad had acquired more recently), collecting dust over the years on the creaky bookshelf in my old bedroom. Jane Eyre was my mom's favorite novel growing up, and when she told me this years ago, my flickering intention to read it grew. I wanted then to peruse the same words that had moved her and share experiences with her across time.
I still have the desire to share experiences with my parents, and so over the holidays, I made matcha for my tea-drinking dad. Each morning, with the chasen (wooden whisk) I had packed from home, I would brew three large bowls of matcha in my parent's kitchen. E and my dad sat at the kitchen table talking while the sun streamed into the large window as I brought out the bowls, their pillars of steam rising. The three of us sipped from our bowls, my dad initially tentative, not knowing what to expect from this dark green liquid in front of him.
It was a fitting convergence: a ritual that E and I shared, transplanted to my old home, transmuted slightly to include my dad. A ritual of preparing and drinking tea that I adopted in adulthood, one that is woven into my current life. Now, in the home where I grew up, my dad drank matcha for the first time, partaking in a ritual that is a part of my life.
I've been thinking about inspiration, that kernel in which serendipity seems to reside. What does it mean to say that one is inspired? Is it more than the strong prickles that you may feel when watching, say, an especially heart-warming story on Oprah? You can be moved by that narrative of resilience on TV. It could even motivate you to consider making changes in your own life. The phrase I'm inspired by her story may come into play here, but isn't it more apt to say that I'm moved by her story?
True inspiration is original in its birth. The inspired idea may be one that has already been bandied about by others countless times. It may not be an original thought in its content, but in its inception, there is originality -an autonomous movement has occured. There is that eureka moment when a germ of an idea flickers and you try to capture it in its purest state. The outlines are fuzzy, but the kernel pulses and you peer at it intently lest it should vanish. Once you have the kernel fully in your grasp, you nurture it, and it grows into something largely fulfilling.
I think about preparing the fertile ground on which I could harvest those eureka moments. A substrate that can gently foster creativity.
I prepare tea for E and me in the late morning, a yellow tea, smooth and honeyed in its flavor. A tea relatively new to me, but one I have had enough times so that I can rely on the unfolding of familiar sensations as I prepare and drink it. But each time I prepare the tea, there are enough differences to pique the imagination.
A bowlful of cranberries in the half-shade.
Teacups that may topple. The cranberries will later burble on the stovetop as I stir the simmering sauce.
Nearby, a black cat scrambles after a spinning dreidel, mesmerized by his new toy.
My fertile ground is this bed of the prosaic on which stray but welcome flowers take root. They scintillate in their beauty and my imagination is irrigated with possibilities.
Overnight, the thaw brought changes: unbroken patches of snow were now porous jigsaw puzzles tufted with grass. I walked to work in the late morning while the sunlight was soft, filtering through a scrim of haze. I passed a chorus of chirps emerging from a dense bank of evergreens, a cabal of birds, happy in their secrecy.
The sting of cold on my face of the last several days was now replaced by a cool balm as I made that short walk to the hospital. Recent arctic weather had jarred with its abrupt appearance. It jangled with habits formed thus far in the season - of my careless throwing on a woolly scarf and a middling-warm jacket, outdoors attire too breezy for the weather at hand.
I was chastened into donning my thick down-filled coat, and I wound my scarf a bit more snugly, the obligatory dapper knot secured at the chin.
But this morning, the swaddling proved unnecessary, and I arrived at the hospital flushed, in an incongruous bundle.
My patient lay in bed, recovering from an early morning procedure. She looked weary but strands of her hair were still perfectly in place. She was starving from the overnight fast required by the procedure and was now craving a big piece of prime rib - an indication to me that she was on the mend. She would be going home later that day as the results of her test were benign. We need to make some changes in your medications, I told her, to prevent theproblem from recurring. She nodded with understanding, and I proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for her going home.
At home, I sat down to cups of sencha. There was the first infusion with its bold and less nuanced flavors, while the second infusion warmed me with its sweet, steady notes. A box of clementines was almost empty, and I took out the last few to have with my tea. The trim clementines, poetic in name and eminently functional in size, graced our kitchen at this time of the year. We'd eat a bowlful at a time and feel virtuous as we avoided dipping into the bag of unctuously sweet peanut brittle nearby.
A splash of orange, an intimation of a warmer season, relieves us from the tedium of the hardy staples of fall and winter. For the time being, I bit into a clementine and forgot about cabbage salads and thick butternut squash soups.
The parsley turned out to be the hardiest of my herbs this year. Despite my spotty watering of our plants, the herb thrived in a whiskey barrel outside our kitchen window. Shoots of parsley grew and grew, usurping the tidy space occupied by the lackluster tarragon, the latter seemingly sapped of its aromatic vigor and yielding a pallid version of itself.
As the temperature dipped, the parsley remained upright, green, and abundant. Other herbs wilted, progressively divested of their green raiment.
With the first frost, I walked outside to see the parsley plantings slumped over. Prostrated on the damp earth, its stems slack but the leaflets still deep green, it looked mildly defeated.
The snowfall overnight blanketed the remnants of my herb garden with white so that only a lone twig, peeling of its bark, could be seen poking out from the snow.
A full year has elapsed since I started this blog. It was done on a whimsy at the end of a long work day when I procrastinated leaving the office to avoid unearthing my car from the piles of snow that had accumulated around it. The snow was falling in sheets, occasionally pelting my office window with loud splotches that melted on impact.
Inside, I sat at my computer and discovered the world of tea blogs. Some (here and here) captivated me with glimpses of a world that was gentle and tea-filled.
Tea, similarly, has permeated my life, I thought. Not just the concrete acts of choosing, preparing, sharing, and drinking tea. It was more than that; tea, whether experienced in solitude or with others, has informed my view of life, one that is more gentle and compassionate.
On that wintry day a year ago, I wanted to be able to express those sentiments for myself and perhaps share them with others. So I started this blog -overcoming my Luddite tendencies in the process- trying to sketch tea-filled moments in my own life. It hasn't always been an easy endeavor: for though it may be relatively simple to catalogue the teas that I have drank, it is something entirely different to capture the interiority of my tea experiences and share them with you.
But writing has buoyed me and I'm grateful for my little corner in the blogosphere.
There are still splashes of red amidst the slow dunning of the world. Bright red berries dangle from leafless limbs and tantalize with a promise of wintry bounty. Colors more muted -soft yellows, pale greens, blanched reds- line the river, the weeping willows overhead and their fallen leaves on the grass.
E and I walked on a sea of these finely-shaped fronds, a thin cushion over damp grass, mushy from a recent rainfall. A river walkway on the other side of town, one not in our repertory of weekend walks. But over last weekend, we decided to veer from habit, exchanging one riparian walkway -one on our side of town- for another.
Our walks on well-known paths are sheathed in the warm mantle of familiarity. The pleasure of predictable sensations as I see that particular tree rustle its few leaves; the anticipation I feel emerging from the dimness of a culvert, then climbing a path that opens onto a magnificent vista of a snaking river.
New vistas unfolded themselves to me over the weekend. A glimpse of a passenger train on its way to the Pacific Northwest, its attendant chug-chug reverberating across fields and river.
We emerged from the valley of the river onto the winding streets of a small town, peering into its shops, many closed as it was Sunday. I had a cup of chai at the Starbucks (a shameful admission, I know) on a hilltop and watched the sun set through the window.
At home, I brewed a new green tea given to me by my friend and colleague, L. He brought it back from the mountainous town of Da Lat on his recent trip to Vietnam. He had seen tea plantations abut coffee plantations in this area, known for its proficiency in cultivating both.
The dry leaves of the tea were ridged with veins of black and green. Coiled loosely, they stretched out to their full length as the tea brewed. Leaves with tattered edges floated in clumps.
I poured the tea into our cups and tasted its mild vegetal flavor. No undercurrents of subtle notes lurked beneath it. The tea tasted familiar to me, and I felt something akin to recognition. A thimbleful of green tea between bites of banh cuon (a Vietnamese dish of savory rice crepes) at a Saigon diner while sandwiched between uncles and parents -this memory thrusting me back to childhood and its sensations.
Now, E and I finished our tea as we shared the last piece of a sweet potato pie.